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Chicago’s cruel plan to withhold high school diplomas

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel thinks holding diplomas hostage will teach students to be more responsible. He’s wrong, and here’s why.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Marton

In a misguided effort to hold students in the nation’s third-largest school system accountable, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed last spring that Chicago Public Schools students who have otherwise successfully completed their studies will have to clear an additional hurdle. Beginning with the class of 2020, high school seniors must demonstrate to school officials that they’ve got a plan for their future including either a college acceptance letter, a secured job, military duty, or a formal gap-year proposal.

“We are going to help kids have a plan, because they’re going to need it to succeed,” Emanuel said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “You cannot have kids think that 12th grade is done.”

The Chicago school board, which Emanuel oversees, agreed with the mayor and unanimously approved the idea, and the Windy City became the first in the nation to make post-graduation planning a prerequisite to a diploma. Perhaps the most charitable view of the Chicago plan is that it accurately recognizes that most high school diplomas carry far less importance than they used to, and that graduates need to do more than sit in a classroom for 12 years to succeed in the modern-day economy.

In the past, a diploma in hand was virtually all a high school graduate needed for entry into the working class. But in the 21st century, low-skilled jobs that require only rudimentary education are almost nonexistent and continuing education is often the price of admission to the workforce. Still, young people with a high school diploma are better poised for success than those who drop out before earning one.

“The data is clear on this,” Jane Metzenger, executive director of the Chicago affiliate of Community in Schools, a national program that works to keep students engaged in their education, said in an interview. “Having a high school diploma is a key determinate in success for a great majority of students. If you don’t have a high school diploma, you are doomed to all kinds of challenges in life, including lower incomes, poorer health outcomes and increased chances of going to prison.”

“If you don’t have a high school diploma, you are doomed to all kinds of challenges in life.”

So, is withholding that totem of success, albeit diminished in value, the proper way to enhance its utility? Not by a long shot. Emanuel and his minions on the Chicago school board are cruelly mistaken in a feel-good effort that essentially punishes the students — notably poor, minority Chicago school kids — for the failure of city and state leaders to produce desired educational outcomes.

What’s more, officials missed an opportunity to devise a plan that might actually help students prepare for successful futures.

Simply stated, political leaders in Chicago and Illinois have used school funding as a bargaining chip in their long-running series of acrimonious gamesmanship. Earlier this year, after threatening to end the school year early because it couldn’t meet its financial obligations to pay into the teachers’ pension fund, the Chicago Board of Education borrowed nearly $400 million to keep students in class through the term.

And that didn’t end the financial woes. According to a recent Reuters news report, a gap in the Chicago public school system’s $5.41 billion budget is expected to grow more than 4.5 times beyond previous estimates, prompting Emanuel to consider a property tax increase or even more borrowing to narrow the shortfall.

The city’s schools laid off more than 1,000 teachers and staff last year. Add to that the fact that roughly 80 percent of the nearly 400,000 students in Chicago schools live in households classified as economically disadvantaged. Those are low-income communities where jobs are scarce and crime is frequent, journalist Amy Alexander said in a recent commentary on National Public Radio. She accurately noted:

…[T]he CPS has seen its share of challenges from decades of accumulating factors, including deep budget cuts that led to widespread teacher layoffs, the shuttering of 49 schools located primarily in low-income neighborhoods, months of protests and hearings, and a former CEO who pleaded guilty to a $23 million kickback scheme. A volatile recurring theme courses throughout many of these developments — racial discrimination and economic inequalities — which existed long before Emanuel became mayor.

Against this backdrop of money troubles and diminished resources for Chicago students, Emanuel suggests a get-tough approach that places the onus on finding jobs or navigating the college application process almost exclusively on the student population that is most at-risk and in need. That’s not a recipe for encouraging high school students to become more responsible. It is an unfortunate approach to education reform that is likely to be counterproductive.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, agrees. “It sounds good on paper, but the problem is that when you’ve cut the number of counselors in schools, when you’ve cut the kinds of services that kids need, who is going to do this work,” Lewis said in an interview with the Washington Post. “If you’ve done the work to earn a diploma, then you should get a diploma. Because if you don’t you are forcing kids into more poverty.”

Mentzinger told me the best part of the mayor’s proposal is that “a lot of people are talking about it, which is a good thing.” But she expressed concern that nothing in the proposal speaks to increasing support for educators to help students prepare for their post-high school lives.

“If NASA sent a rocket into outer space and it fails, you don’t blame the astronauts.”

Sadly, she said, those resources aren’t part of the current diploma-withholding plan. “If NASA sent a rocket into outer space and it fails, you don’t blame the astronauts,” she said. “You go back and look at the engineers and ask them what went wrong. In this case, the schools are the engineers and have to provide the supports and resources that students need to succeed.”

Some education experts, such as Michael Dannenberg at Education Reform Now, the Washington-based think tank affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform, are guardedly supportive of the Chicago initiative. “It’s important for every student to take steps to prepare for life after graduation,” Dannenberg told me. “The value of a high school education is not only acquiring certain knowledge and skills, but demonstrate some sticktuitiveness. This requirement is just a new metric that will demonstrate students’ persistence that evidences some steps toward a plan for their future after graduation.”

However, Dannenberg said he would much prefer the schools give students their earned diplomas, and substitute withholding participation in graduation ceremonies until they demonstrate after-school career plans. “I think holding the diploma is a particularly heavy hammer,” he said. “They could generate a similar level of incentive for students without the harm of denying them a diploma which is being characterized as punitive.”

While Danneberg’s midway proposal is less draconian than what Chicago officials are intent on doing, there’s an even better alternative — one that properly places the prime responsibility for providing a platform for student success on state and local school systems.

“They could generate a similar level of incentive for students without the harm of denying them a diploma.”

During his unsuccessful run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Virginia earlier this year, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello proposed a novel and forward-thinking education reform package. It called for a state-funded education program, beginning with pre-Kindergarten programs and continuing past 12th grade with two years of vocational training, apprenticeships, or community college.

In the spirit of full disclosure, for a six-week period leading up to the primary election, I helped advise the Perriello campaign and played a minor role in promoting his education proposals. Repeatedly, I heard him win over supporters with an appeal for greater state responsibility in the education of Virginia’s kids.

For example, in an online debate, Perriello argued that his education policies came from listening to the needs of state residents, who wanted assistance finding jobs or training programs after completing high school. “I designed this plan not inside my own head,” Perriello said. “These are ideas I’ve heard at more than 350 public events across Virginia.”

In political terms, it may sound marvelous to identify a problem such as the need for education reform and, then, demand accountability as a solution. But the finger-pointing ought to be aimed in the right direction. It makes sense to demand rigorous standards for high school students and to guide them toward wise career paths, but denying an earned diploma for the failures of state budget crunchers, local school administrators, and political leaders is blaming the victims — schoolkids — for problems not exclusively of their making.


Chicago’s cruel plan to withhold high school diplomas was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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